Senator Leahy: Time to Narrow and Sharpen Our Goals in Afghanistan

What if we had never gone to war in Iraq?  I wonder where our country might be today if we had never made that tragic mistake.  Thousands of American families would never have stood before flag-draped coffins, grieving over young lives cut short.   A trillion dollars in debt would not be burdening our economy, to be paid back by our children and grandchildren. 


Our troops did all we asked of them and more.  In the toll they paid, and in the burden laid upon the nation, the war in Iraq cost us dearly.  I voted with 22 other senators against authorizing the Iraq War, believing then as I do today that the strategy of containment was keeping Saddam Hussein at bay.  If he posed an imminent threat to anyone, it was to Iran, not to the United States.


Today the Senate finds itself at a similar crossroads as that fateful 2003 vote.  The war in Afghanistan will be ten years old this November.  Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks, is dead.  So what do we do now?


I asked Secretary of Defense Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen that question at a defense budget hearing last week.  Both of them answered that we should stay the course.


Yet their rationale was dismayingly similar to what I heard about Vietnam as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, 36 years ago.  A few days after that 1975 hearing, I became the first and only U.S. senator from Vermont to vote to end funding for the Vietnam War.


The American people depend on the global leadership of the United States.  Our economy and our security are intertwined with those of other nations.  But we must make wise choices.  Every life we lose in war is a life lost to a family and to a country that needs the vitality of its youth to build America’s future.  Whatever we might hope for Afghanistan, we must be realistic about what we can accomplish.  We must also assess the price of our involvement there in terms of lost opportunities to invest in our own country as we struggle out of the Great Recession. 


In President Karzai we have an unreliable partner whose government is widely regarded as ineffective and corrupt.  It is also difficult to have confidence in the Afghan army when Lieutenant General William Caldwell, head of the training mission in Afghanistan, reports that only 14 percent of Afghan army recruits can read or count. 


In Pakistan, the situation is worse.  Top officials there told us repeatedly of their determination to capture Osama bin Laden, yet they have arrested the few Pakistanis who actually helped us track him down.  Those same Pakistani officials say one thing to so-called allies, and the opposite to the Pakistani people.  It is anyone’s guess where the lies end and the truth begins.  Meanwhile, that government sits perilously atop a stockpile of nuclear weapons, the designs for which it reportedly shared with North Korea.


Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen told me last week that we are making progress in Afghanistan against the Taliban.  But we need the Afghans to make progress against the Taliban.  Otherwise the Taliban will resurge when U.S. troops withdraw.   


Our current strategy matches neither our national interests nor the fiscal and political realities we face today.  I believe we can do a better job of combating terrorism if we pursue narrower, better-defined goals.  Under a new strategy, as U.S. troops withdraw, we can offer our allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan a level of support that can be effectively absorbed and accounted for, including local institution-building and development aid.  We can pursue al Qaeda and other international terrorists who threaten us.  And we can offer real allies our help in defending against internal threats from extremists.


Today the President will announce his initial plan for troop withdrawal.  I hope he will also unveil a new counter-terrorism strategy that includes an accelerated redeployment plan.  The course we set is vitally important, and we cannot afford to get it wrong.


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